On the last day of April, Mayor Karl Dean drove home from his office and headed into the weekend after a long but successful week.
The day before, he delivered his annual State of Metro address, calling the city’s outlook optimistic after quelling fears when he unveiled a budget that preserved most Metro services. The reception couldn’t have been better. Things looked good.
Then the rain came.
“We went into the weekend knowing there would be a lot of rain, but not anything like these totals,” a visibly exhausted Dean recalled. “But you could tell as Saturday went along that this was a totally different event than normal. And of course by Sunday, it was clear we were in a very serious situation.”
What ensued, following a record 13 inches of rainfall in 48 hours, were well-documented scenes of disastrous flooding that engulfed a broad swath of Davidson County, from Bellevue, Bordeaux and Antioch to downtown, Donelson and parts of Inglewood.
By mid-week, flooding had resulted in at least nine deaths. In some neighborhoods, rooftops barely surfaced above floodwaters. Several streets were destroyed, and some 450 roads and bridges were in need of repair. Officials called on the citizenry to conserve water after the city lost one of its two water treatment plants to the flood. Landmark buildings such as the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, Opry Mills and the Country Music Hall of Fame sustained significant flood damage.
If devising a $1.5 billion budget during a cash-strapped year tested the mayor, the challenge that awaited him and his administration presented something much more.
Council members pleased
During a moment of crisis, a city government is supposed to transition from supplier of basic services to provider of response, recovery and relief. That’s why the Office of Emergency Management exists. It’s a department that receives little outside attention most of the year, but it becomes vitally important during a natural disaster.
According to Dean, the office is under constant review to ensure readiness during emergencies. On Saturday morning, Dean assembled the OEM team and began to coordinate efforts among Metro departments. As the disaster unfolded — from last Saturday through last Monday — Dean said Metro police officers visited 9,194 homes, Metro firemen responded to 1,897 phone calls, while ambulance workers responded to 540 calls.
“It’s been incredible,” Dean said of the response.
In the four-plus years following Hurricane Katrina, the response of governments during moments of crisis has been placed under a new microscope. In Nashville’s case, early assessments of the city’s emergency response plan, in the immediate aftermath of the flood, have been generally positive, with only a few complaints.
Metro Council members whose districts were ravaged by flooding spent much of last week in the trenches with victims, to help them start to rebuild.
At-Large Councilman Charlie Tygard, a longtime resident of Bellevue, vacated his car just before it was overwhelmed by floodwater. His mother’s River Plantation condominium took in 7 feet of floodwater, with flooding devastating his daughter’s home as well. Still, he doesn’t know what else Metro could have done.
“Overall, given the magnitude and the swiftness of the flooding, I was pleasantly surprised,” Tygard said of Metro’s preparedness. He said his one suggestion would be to perhaps signal tornado warning sirens during flooding, but added: “There’s so little way to get information out when the power’s out, so I was OK with the response.”
Along north Nashville’s Tucker Road, a street virtually destroyed by the weekend of flooding, Councilman Lonnell Matthews Jr. helped some of the 300 or so flood victims in that area clean up debris. He said the evacuation process went relatively smoothly, but he pointed out that he and a few other elected representatives were still some of the only officials victims had seen for additional assistance as of Tuesday.
“We’ve never experienced a storm like this, so with the plan we’ve had in place, I think Metro has responded, but there are several kinks in our disaster plan that we probably need to look at,” Matthews said.
Councilman Eric Crafton, meanwhile, estimated flooding in his Bellevue council district affected between 1,000 and 1,500 houses. Half that figure “lost everything,” he said. Usually, he’s one of the few outspoken critics of Dean, but this time around, he said he was pleased with Metro’s emergency response.
“There’s no way for anyone to anticipate this type of flood situation,” Crafton said. “As far as how Metro handled everything, from the police and fire to various Metro departments, I think they did an excellent job.”